Review of Heinrich Popitz, Phenomena of Power: Authority, Domination, and Violence

Review of Heinrich Popitz, Phenomena of Power: Authority, Domination, and Violence. Translated by Gianfranco Poggi. Edited by Andreas Göttlich and Jochen Dreher.

New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

ISBN 9780231544566. Pp. xxvi + 202

Reviewed by Austin Harrington, University of Leeds


Long overdue in English translation, Heinrich Popitz’s Phenomena of Power (Phänomene der Macht) has been a staple text of the German research curriculum in sociology since its first publication in German in 1986.  Routinely cited on courses in sociology at German universities for many years and written in strikingly lean, lucid and jargon-free prose, the book combines in many respects the best of a European ethnographic, humanistic and historically grounded approach to topics in sociology with an intensely analytical idiom, often seen as characteristic of Anglo-American traditions of research.

Popitz, a professor at Freiburg University till his death in 2002, was an established name in German sociology by the 1960s, well-known for studies in the sociology of industrial relations and later for work on phenomena of creativity, technology and social norms, influenced in part by the uniquely German twentieth-century idiom of thought known as philosophische Anthropologie, stemming from Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner and Arnold Gehlen.  Notably, he was also the son of Johannes Popitz, last minister of finance in the German government of the Weimar Republic, later executed under the Third Reich for his role in the failed assassination attempt on Hitler led by Graf Stauffenberg in 1944 – and at some subterranean level, these dark events of German history might be seen as driving the remorselessly searching light Popitz shines on phenomena of power throughout the book, although they are never once referred to.

Precisely because it is Popitz’s intention in this book to analyse phenomena of power as directly given facts of social life with no prior commitment to a particular interpretive school, it is difficult to capture his conception in terms of any specific ‘ism’ or idiom of inquiry.  Though peppered with references to Max Weber and written in a style reminiscent of Simmel, the text at no point positions itself explicitly in relation to any other more recent accredited names in the sociology of power, either from Anglophone or continental European traditions.  No main-text citations appear at all, for example, to names such as Parsons, Blau, Wrong or Lukes or to Gramsci, Foucault, Arendt or Habermas.  Nevertheless, one way of characterising the book would be to say that it analyses a multitude of effects and functions of power in social life, including specifically effects and functions at a high level of remove from definite spatio-temporally singular physical events, acts or instruments of power, such as historically long-enduring norms, forms, roles and rights of conduct.  Readers new to the book might in these respects be reminded of the work of Foucault in its concentration typically on dimensions of life not ordinarily thought of in terms of asymmetric relationships, such as constructions of mutuality, recognition and equality of individuals under the law.  Yet rather than presenting any committed linguistic ontology of power qua ‘power-knowledge’ or ‘power-discourse’ in the sense of Foucault, Popitz makes clear that his is a study not of social life as power but only of social life in terms of ‘phenomena of power’ – deliberately leaving open the possibility that social life might equally be examined in terms of other basic categories of association.  In this sense, his title suggests a ‘phenomenology’ of power in social life – albeit, again, not a technical phenomenology in any explicit sense of Husserl’s or Hegel’s formulation of this term in philosophy.

Chapter 1 introduces a four-part scheme of power-concepts, comprising: ‘power of action’ (Aktionsmacht); ‘instrumental power’ (instrumentelle Macht); ‘authoritative power’ (authoritative Macht); and ‘power of data constitution’ (datensetzende Macht).  ‘Power of action’ is power operative in any given singular act.  ‘Instrumental power’ is power of sanction, or power to punish or reward: to threaten or to promise, to extort or to induce.  ‘Authoritative power’ is internalised domination (Herrschaft) in willing dispositions of conduct of the person.  ‘Power of data constitution’ is power of ‘facts on the ground’, or power mediated by objective social facts, such as conquest and settlement of land, property, and control over resources and means of production.

Throughout the book Popitz is concerned with processes of long-term perpetuation, accumulation and legitimation of power, starting from singular power-acts and moving through stages of reproduction and evolution of power-acts into enduring systems of domination.  Throughout, the focus is on ways and degrees to which holders of power secure, retain, preserve and augment credible structures of power with a maximum of operative efficiency and economy, based on a minimum of necessary organisational force.  Notably in the second half of the book, culminating in a series of chapters on authority, ‘recognition’ (Anerkennung) and forms of stabilization and institutionalization of power, Popitz anatomizes ways in which relations of power come to gain inner acceptance by individuals as normative social structures of subjectivity and responsibility – largely along lines comparable to Foucault’s or Gramsci’s influential reflections on patterns of ‘subjectivation’, ‘discipline’ and syntheses of ‘coercion and consent’ as ‘hegemony’.

In Chapters 2 and 3, Popitz turns first to forms of consolidation of power-acts into persistent powers of sanction based on credible chains of expectation of reaction by parties to actions and events.  Dominant parties can use violence to harm, constrain or deprive and can threaten to do so again, or can promise not to do so on condition of obedience.  Through fear or through hope of reward or relief, feelings, affects and behaviours can be steered to high levels of fantastic abstraction from immediate realities, typically by means of calculated exploitation of states of uncertainty.  At the limit, a power to kill marks an absolute extent of power in the sense that killers can kill and nevertheless themselves be killed in their turn and are powerless to deter actors willing to forfeit life of their own accord – in other words, martyrs.  More ordinarily, Popitz writes, routinized threats capable of steering behaviour in various ways, such as ‘no parking’ signs on a street, form ‘general components of the syntax of social interaction’ (p. 58).  But threats and promises can be disguised in a multitude of subtle forms, as warnings voiced ostensibly as neutral predictions, prognoses or recommendations, as nudges or influences on opinion and motive, or as acts of plausibly deniable blackmail and bribery, and so on.  Dominant parties seek a minimum expenditure of force and advantage with minimum risks of failure of credibility or loss of perceived capacity to punish.  Threats in this regard tend to be more cost-effective than promises if conformity is more or less the established pattern of conduct.  By contrast, patronage or promises of rewards tend to be more cost-effective if non-conformity is the pattern, since threats involve credible commitments to real intervention, with risks of failure when carried out.  Conduct can be shaped and moulded in this way into intricate structures of routinized adaptation to power realities, underpinned by symbolic markers of recognised loyalty and service that confer status and honour, or shame, mistrust and hostility if refused.

Authority in Popitz’s understanding is then the constant functional framework in which outer punitive instances take on inner dispositional form as foci of orientation in patterns of individual conduct of life.  Authority in this sense forms a type of affirmed dependency or bond or attachment of the self to holders of power.  ‘The person who depends on authority’, Popitz writes, ‘is fixated on the other, fixated in particular on all actions that one may consider as a reaction to oneself.  One is chained up to a relation, real or imagined, that bind one to the other’ (p. 73).  This configuration in no way disappears in the course of modern processes of decline in stratified hierarchies of society and ascendant norms of social equality and democracy.  In Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Apprenticeship, Popitz comments, the protagonist’s bourgeois sense of inferiority to the nobleman’s effortless superiority is a type of internalised ‘authority-bond’ (Authoritätsbindung) that does not vary fundamentally with any pathway of replacement of ascribed roles and stratified class or caste orders by norms of achieved entitlement based on rights of individual parity of treatment.  Instead, authority in the modern egalitarian arena assumes only a new valence of normativity anchored in the very fact of recognition of individuals by one another in social interaction itself.  Authority is henceforth the societally dispersed resource that individuals need, desire and seek as means of acceptance and validation of their own actions, utterances and manifestations of personality, in and from relations of interaction with one another.  As Popitz formulates this:

I assume that authority bonds are based on the aspiration to obtain recognition from others.  Authority is exercised by persons obtaining recognition from someone who is felt as particularly urgent, as decisive for the assurance of being socially recognised, of being taken seriously socially.

The sense that one is socially recognised is essential for our own self-acceptance, our self-esteem.  Insofar as recognition from authorities is decisive for a sense of being socially recognized, our own self-acceptance also comes to depend on that ‘authoritative’ recognition.  Accordingly, the aspiration to recognition from authorities is also an aspiration to accept ourselves.

Thus it is via this component, our own aspiration to recognition, both from others and from ourselves, that we engender the effects of authority in the first place and produce boundedness to persons in authority (p. 79).

In the final parts of the book, Popitz turns to matters of practical acquiescence of dominated parties in facts of power and to capacities of power systems to be secured and magnified to dramatic effect from the starting-point often of only fairly slight initial advantages.  Key for Popitz are David Hume’s lapidary words in the opening sentence of the essay Of the First Principles of Government: ‘Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophic eye than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few’.  Structures of domination over the many by the few can emerge with a seemingly mysterious inevitability that stems from a propensity of often decidedly small initial strategic acts and resources to evolve into complex systems of organisation, with an almost impregnable character.  And once established, such systems can be steered and regulated likewise with only minimal additional effort, as if from the tip of a finger or flick of a switch.  A prison guard in this way can decide over the life and death of an inmate by the merest decision of whether to grant one ration of gruel or two.

To illuminate these outcomes, Popitz covers many dense pages analysing three imaginary case situations: first, conflicts over use-rights of deck-chairs on a cruise ship; second, control over production of food and other meagre commodities among inmates of a prison-camp; and third, control of daily bread rations among gang-leaders of a military cadet training school.  Without saying so at the outset, Popitz intentionally gives the reader to understand gradually that at stake in these examples is power by means of, respectively, (i) ownership and rent, (ii) control over means of production, and (iii) currency and taxation.  On the cruise ship, a class of chair owners emerges, followed in turn by a class of chair guardians who watch over the chairs against the chair-less and enjoy temporary use of them while the owners rise for a stroll.  At the prison camp, a nucleus of inmates build a stove and gradually gain monopoly over food production by drawing all other inmates into relations of dependency in services of supply, preparation, distribution and sabotage of attempts at rival stoves.  At the military school, a gang of cadets devise a way of hardening the bread into durable biscuits and ensure that other cadets render a portion of their biscuits to the ring-leaders via a class of collectors acting as tribute enforcers.

In each of these scenarios, Popitz exhibits in brilliant detail the ability of minority holders of power to entrench, augment and transform an initially relatively marginal and contingent situation of advantage into complexly evolving systems of functional relations of interdependence and mutual interest of affected parties.  Resistance or overthrow of the system is always possible in theory but in practice invariably undermined by an inability of dominated groups to escape immediate exigencies of collaboration in barest vital self-interest.  Without relying on any particular psychological assumption, Popitz lays bare a remorseless existential logic of the evolution of structures of willing acquiescence of the powerless or power-deprived in situations of inequality and exploitation.

A veritable store-house of insights, Phenomena of Power examines links of functional implication and causal effect between micro-, meso- and macro-levels of forms of power in ways that are both empirically and conceptually highly compelling.  Rarely is the reader left with any feeling of sleight of hand or unwarranted leap from micro- to macro-dimensions of control.  Never losing sight of violence and physical force as material substrates of structures of power, Popitz accords equal primacy to both political and economic mainstays of power in the sense of the twin legacies of Weberian and Marxian paradigms of power research.  Starting from definite situations of interaction governed by inwardly felt subjective dispositions and then moving gradually outwards to more complex impersonal structures of functional interdependence – much in the manner of, say, Simmel or Goffman – Popitz deploys a language of analysis that can seem plain on the surface and nevertheless strikingly concrete and tangible in yield.  The book way in this way manages to escape something of the methodological-individualist thinness of some Anglophone social-science game-theoretic models of power, as well as something of the opacity of the more holist idioms of analysis characteristic of work in the traditions of US structural functionalism, French linguistic structuralism and contemporary systems theory and neo-vitalist theory.  In its exposé of modern democratic cultures of social authority in terms of real asymmetric relations of formal equality between persons, the book is richly complementary on many levels to current discourse-analytic types of critical intervention in the politics of liberal pluralism, multiculturalism and recognition.

Some readers might sense some lacunae in the terrain covered by the book.  Not much sense is conveyed of a global comparative theatre of relations of power between West and East or North and South; and whereas a large amount of current French and Anglophone work on power thematises linguistic and psycho-discursive dimensions of power regulative across fields of medicine, health, psychiatry, ability and disability in society, as well as desire, sexuality, gender and intimacy (including domestic violence) and the commercial and mediatic manipulation of consumer affect and demand, Popitz leaves these areas largely occluded.  Readers might also wonder at some places as to how exactly the items at the forefront of his concentration intersect in their character of power with other basic criteria of societal phenomenality, such as morality, education, culture, cognition and belief.  As noted, Popitz presents only a phenomenology of power rather than any avowed ontology of social life as power; and it is important to underline that in his other as yet untranslated writings, including Soziale Normen (2006) and Wege der Kreativität (2000), Popitz addresses numerous matters of transformative agency in social life at length.  Yet in the book at hand, Popitz’s methodological agnosticism on questions of the relation of power to normative values and ideas of right, wrong, freedom, enlightenment and the good life can leave the reader on occasion with a sense of a certain subterfuge of avoidance.  Morality, education, belief, legality and constitutionality seem not fully intelligible in terms of power sanction systems alone but also, at least at some salient level of analysis, as intrinsic normative media of cognitive and emotive self-reference of the socialised subject.  Likewise, positive emotions and values of social order and bondedness such as friendship, patriotism and civic pride and virtue seem not comprehensible exclusively as features of pure ‘heteronomous’ relations of the self to superordinate power.  In these connections, Popitz’s statements tend in some ways to suffer from a certain evasiveness of metaphysical and normative commitment, perhaps comparable to difficulties that some critics tend to detect in the writings of Foucault.  Nevertheless, the sheer brilliance of Popitz’s analyses, always forensically tied down to definite case situations in the manner of the thickly descriptive fieldwork procedure of scholars from, say, Clifford Geertz to James C. Scott, more than compensate for these perplexities and make this book an especially valuable companion source for the empirical researcher – and ideal also for the student reader.

Phenomena of Power is beautifully translated by the renowned Italian sociologist of power, Gianfranco Poggi, and is published by Columbia University Press with a wide-ranging and informative introduction to the thought of Popitz in its German context by Andreas Göttlich and Jochen Dreher.